Can Dogs Get Dementia? Signs of Canine Cognitive Dysfunction

Is dementia in dogs common? Learn the common signs of dementia in dogs here and discover how to support your senior dog’s brain health in this comprehensive article.

Jul 06, 2024·13 min read
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Can Dogs Get Dementia? Signs of Canine Cognitive Dysfunction

Key facts:

  • On average, dogs are living longer.
  • An increased lifespan also means that dogs are more likely to experience age-related diseases, including cognitive decline, similar to aging humans.
  • Canine cognitive dysfunction (CCD) is often referred to as dog dementia.
  • CCD affects approximately 14-35% of dogs over 8 years of age.
  • Although there is no cure for dementia in dogs, various strategies can help manage the condition and improve quality of life.

In the last 40 years, the lifespan of our canine companions has increased. This is amazing for us pet parents, as we get to spend more time with our furry best friends, but the downside is that in the latter years, dogs can experience more age-related medical conditions, including cancer, arthritis, and cognitive decline, just like us humans. 

Canine cognitive dysfunction (CCD), often referred to as dog dementia, affects a significant number of senior dogs. According to studies, CCD affects about 14-35% of dogs over 8 years of age, depending on their age and health status. 

Understanding the signs and symptoms of dementia in dogs can help you provide better care and improve your furry friend’s quality of life.

Can Dogs Get Dementia?

Yes, dogs can get dementia. CCD is a condition similar to Alzheimer’s disease in humans, characterized by a decline in cognitive function. This decline can lead to behavioral changes, memory loss, and disorientation, among other clinical signs. 

When Do Dogs Typically Develop Dementia?

Signs of CCD typically begin around 7-11 years old. The onset can vary depending on the breed, lifestyle, and overall health of your dog. Smaller breeds often live longer and become seniors later in life. So, larger breeds may show signs of dementia sooner than smaller breeds. According to a 2001 study, 28% of 11-12 year old dogs and 68% of 15-16 year olds displayed some degree of cognitive impairment.

Causes of Dementia in Dogs

The cause of dog dementia isn’t completely known, however, CCD is believed to be due to aging and the effects it can have on the brain. As dogs age, their brains undergo changes, such as the accumulation of beta-amyloid. According to Dr. Liza Cahn, a veterinary advisor for PetLab Co., this protein buildup is harmful to neurons, the essential cells responsible for transmitting information throughout the brain. Other factors that may contribute to dementia in dogs include oxidative stress, genetics, chronic health conditions like hypertension or diabetes, and exposure to environmental toxins.

A senior Golden Retriever with a light golden coat walking on a dirt path, with green grass in the background. The dog appears to be slightly panting with its tongue out.

Signs of Dog Dementia

The DISHAAL acronym can be used to remember the signs of canine cognitive dysfunction. It stands for: 

  • Disorientation
  • Abnormal Interactions
  • Sleep/wake cycle disturbances
  • House soiling
  • Activity changes
  • Anxiety
  • Learning/memory changes

Signs of dementia in dogs can also be broken down into early and late-stage signs.

First Signs of Dementia in Dogs

  • Disorientation and confusion
  • Decreased interaction with family members
  • Changes in sleep patterns
  • Peeing or pooping in the house
  • Reduced interest in playing or activities
  • Increased anxiety or restlessness

Late-Stage Dementia Signs in Dogs

  • Severe disorientation (getting stuck in corners, difficulty finding doors)
  • Significant changes in sleep-wake cycles
  • Loss of learned behaviors
  • Persistent pacing or wandering
  • Increased vocalization, often at night
  • Aggression or other behavioral changes

Canine Dementia Symptoms at Night: Sundowners in Dogs

Sundowning is a condition where your dog can become particularly agitated, anxious, or restless in the evening hours or at night. It is part of the sleep-wake cycle disturbances associated with CCD. Dogs with sundowners may pace, whine, or exhibit other signs of distress as the day progresses into the night. It is still not entirely known why this occurs, but it is believed to be related to changes in the brain that affect the sleep-wake cycle and circadian rhythms.

How to Calm a Dog With Dementia at Night

To help with sundowning, consider the following strategies:

Maintain a Consistent Evening Routine

Providing a predictable routine can help your dog feel more secure and less anxious. Feed your dog and take them for walks at the same time each evening. These consistent routines can help signal to your dog that it’s time to wind down.

Use Calming Aids

There are various products available that can help calm an anxious dog. Pheromone diffusers release a synthetic version of the calming pheromones that mother dogs produce. 

Create a Comfortable Sleeping Environment

Ensure that your dog’s sleeping area is comfortable, quiet, and dark. Use a soft, supportive bed, and consider adding blankets that carry your scent to help them feel secure. Blocking out external noises with white noise machines or fans can also create a more restful environment.

Provide Gentle, Reassuring Interactions

Spend some quiet time with your dog before bed. Gentle petting, brushing, or speaking softly to them can help ease their anxiety. Avoid overly stimulating activities late in the evening as these can exacerbate restlessness.

Engage in Calming Activities Before Bed

Activities like gentle play, obedience training, or a slow, calming walk can help expend some of your dog’s energy and make them more ready for sleep. Just ensure these activities are not too stimulating.

Consider Medications

In some cases, your veterinarian might recommend medications to help manage your dog’s symptoms. These can include anti-anxiety medications, sedatives, or even specific medications designed to help with cognitive dysfunction in dogs.

Adjust Diet and Feeding Times

Some dogs may benefit from a small meal or snack before bedtime, which can help keep their blood sugar levels stable through the night. Consult with your veterinarian about the best feeding schedule for your dog.

Use Night Lights

Placing night lights around your home can help your dog navigate and reduce anxiety caused by disorientation in the dark.

Exercise and Mental Stimulation

Ensuring your dog gets plenty of physical exercise and mental stimulation during the day can help them sleep better at night. Puzzle toys, training sessions, and interactive play can help tire them out.

Consult with a Veterinary Behaviorist

If your dog’s sundowning symptoms are severe, consulting with a veterinary behaviorist can provide more tailored strategies and interventions to help manage their condition effectively.

Diagnosing Dementia in Dogs

Veterinarians typically diagnose CCD using a combination of medical history, physical exams, behavioral assessments, and diagnostic tools. The Canine Dementia Scale (CADES) and the DISHAAL acronym (Disorientation, Interaction changes, Sleep-wake cycle disturbances, House soiling, Activity level changes, Anxiety) are often used to assess the severity of CCD. Additional tests, such as blood work and imaging, may be conducted to rule out other conditions.

What is The Canine Dementia Scale?

The Canine Dementia Scale or CADES, is a rating scale used for canines with CDS. The scale contains 17 nonredundant items, distributed across 4 relevant domains: (1) spatial orientation, (2) social interactions, (3) sleep-wake cycles, and (4) house soiling. This scale can help veterinarians determine the severity of a dog’s CDS.

How to Support a Dog With Dementia

While dementia in dogs cannot be cured, there are several ways pet parents can support their dogs to improve their quality of life:

  • Veterinary-prescribed medication: Medications like selegiline (Anipryl) can help manage symptoms. Your vet may also prescribe medications to help address anxiety. 
  • Making safety changes to the home: Install ramps, block stairs, and keep furniture in the same place to prevent accidents.
  • Providing a quiet space for calm and relaxation: Create a comfortable area where your dog can rest undisturbed.
  • Providing brain games and mental stimulation: Engage your dog with puzzles and interactive toys to keep their mind active.
  • Continuing regular exercise: Maintain a routine of gentle exercise to promote physical and mental well-being.
  • Diet: Prescription diets formulated to support brain health may be recommended by your veterinarian if your dog is diagnosed with CCD.

Assessing Your Dog’s Quality of Life

As CCD progresses, it’s important to regularly assess your dog’s quality of life. Tools like the Quality of Life Scale can help determine whether your dog is experiencing more good days than bad. Regular veterinary check-ups can also provide insights into your dog’s health status.

Dog Dementia Life Expectancy

While CCD is a progressive condition, proper management and support can help many dogs enjoy a good quality of life for years. Many dogs with dementia can live a full life, but those who are severely affected are often euthanized 12-24 months after diagnosis, depending on the severity of their symptoms, other medical conditions, and the care they receive.

When to Put a Dog With Dementia Down

Making the decision to euthanize a pet is difficult. Consider humane euthanasia if your dog’s quality of life has significantly deteriorated, and they are experiencing constant pain or distress that cannot be alleviated.

A brown dog lying on a bed, looking lethargic or sad, while a human hand gently pets its head. The setting suggests a comforting environment for the dog.

Preventative Tips: Keeping Your Dog’s Brain Sharp

Veterinarians aren’t sure what exactly causes dementia in dogs, but keeping a dog’s brain healthy and sharp may help stave off the progression of the disease. A healthy lifestyle, including regular exercise, mental stimulation, and a balanced diet, can potentially delay the onset of CCD. Here are some tips:

  • Providing Daily Mental Stimulation: Engage your dog with new toys, training sessions, and interactive games.
  • Ensuring Proper Nutrition: A balanced diet supports overall health, including brain function. Choose a WSAVA-compliant diet appropriate for your dog’s life stage, or consider asking your vet about a prescription brain support diet. 
  • Feeding Healthy Brain Foods: You may include foods rich in antioxidants and omega-3 fatty acids, such as blueberries, salmon, and spinach, as treats or in moderation.
  • Offering Socialization Opportunities: Regular playdates and social interactions can keep your dog mentally engaged.
  • Limiting Exposure to Toxins: Avoid exposure to harmful chemicals and ensure your dog’s environment is safe.
  • Maintaining Regular Veterinary Appointments: Routine check-ups can help catch early signs of health issues, including cognitive decline.

By understanding canine cognitive dysfunction and taking proactive steps, you can help your dog maintain a better quality of life and enjoy more precious moments together.

Dog Dementia FAQs

Is canine dementia the same as human dementia? 

Canine dementia, known as canine cognitive dysfunction (CCD), is similar to human dementia in many ways, including symptoms like memory loss, disorientation, and behavioral changes. However, the exact causes and progression can differ. Both conditions involve cognitive decline due to aging, but CCD in dogs is less understood and lacks the extensive research available for human dementia.

Is there medication for dog dementia? 

Yes, there are medications available that can help manage the symptoms of dog dementia. One commonly prescribed medication is Anipryl (selegiline), which can improve cognitive function and behavior in dogs with CCD. It’s important to consult with your veterinarian to determine the best treatment plan for your dog.

Do dogs know they have dementia? 

It is unlikely that dogs are aware they have dementia. However, they may experience confusion and anxiety.. While they may not understand the condition itself, they can feel the effects of cognitive decline, which can affect their daily routines and interactions with their owners. Providing a supportive and stable environment can help ease their discomfort.

What are the first signs of dementia in dogs? 

Early signs of dementia in dogs include disorientation, decreased interaction with family members, changes in sleep patterns, house soiling, reduced interest in playing or activities, and increased anxiety or restlessness. Recognizing these signs early can help in managing the condition more effectively.

Can canine dementia be prevented? 

While there is no guaranteed way to prevent canine dementia, keeping your dog’s brain active and healthy can potentially delay its onset. Providing a balanced diet rich in brain-healthy foods, ensuring regular mental stimulation, maintaining social interactions, limiting exposure to toxins, and keeping up with regular veterinary check-ups are all ways to support your dog’s cognitive health.

How is canine dementia diagnosed? 

Veterinarians diagnose canine dementia through a combination of medical history, physical exams, behavioral assessments, and diagnostic tools. The Canine Dementia Scale (CADES) and the DISHAAL acronym (Disorientation, Interaction changes, Sleep-wake cycle disturbances, House soiling, Activity level changes, Anxiety, Learning/memory changes) are often used to assess the severity of CCD. Additional tests, such as blood work and imaging, may be conducted to rule out other conditions.

How can I support my dog with dementia? 

To support a dog with dementia, consider veterinary-prescribed medications, making safety changes to the home, providing a quiet space for relaxation, offering brain games and mental stimulation, and continuing regular exercise. Maintaining a consistent routine and avoiding known triggers can also help manage the symptoms and improve your dog’s quality of life.

What should I do if my dog shows signs of sundowning?

If your dog shows signs of sundowning, such as increased agitation or anxiety in the evening, try to maintain a consistent evening routine, use calming aids like pheromone diffusers, ensure the sleeping area is comfortable and quiet, and provide gentle, reassuring interactions to help your dog settle.

When should I consider euthanasia for a dog with dementia? 

Considering euthanasia for a dog with dementia is a difficult decision that should be made based on the dog’s quality of life. If your dog’s symptoms have significantly deteriorated, and they are experiencing constant pain or distress that cannot be alleviated, humane euthanasia may be the kindest option. Consult with your veterinarian to make an informed decision.

Final Thoughts on Canine Cognitive Dysfunction

Canine cognitive dysfunction, or dog dementia, is a challenging condition for both pets and their owners. Understanding the signs and symptoms of CCD can help pet parents recognize the early stages and seek appropriate veterinary care. While there is no cure for dementia in dogs, various strategies can improve their quality of life and slow progression of disease, including medications, home modifications, mental stimulation, and a healthy diet.

By staying vigilant and providing compassionate care, you can help your furry friend navigate this condition with dignity and comfort. Remember to regularly assess your dog’s quality of life and consult with your veterinarian to make informed decisions about their care. Embrace the time you have with your beloved pet, cherish the moments, and support them as they age gracefully.


Becca TriggB

Becca Trigg

An all round animal lover, who absolutely adores writing and researching anything puppy! Over the past few years, I have been able to gain ample pet knowledge; specifically joint health and dental hygiene. When I'm not typing away in the office, I can be found sitting in a country pub or growing chillies

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The information contained within this site is not intended as a substitute for professional medical or veterinary advice. PetLab Co. is not intended to diagnose, treat, cure or prevent any disease. If your pet has, or you suspect your pet has any medical condition, you are urged to consult your veterinarian. Medical conditions can only be diagnosed by a licensed veterinarian. These statements have not been evaluated by the Food and Drug Administration. Results May Vary. Not intended for human consumption. Please consult your veterinarian regarding any change in treatment or supplementation.
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